Second Child


When Polly MacIver awoke just before dawn that morning, she had not the slightest presentiment that she was about to die. As her mind swam lazily in the ebbing tide of sleep, she found herself giggling silently at the memory of the dream that had just roused her. It had been Thanksgiving Day in the dream, and the house was filled with people. Some of them were familiar to her. Tom was sprawled out on the floor, his big frame stretched in front of the fireplace as he studied a chessboard on which Teri had apparently trapped his queen. Teri herself was sitting cross-legged on the carpet, grinning impudently at her father’s predicament. There were others scattered around the living room—more, indeed, than Polly would have thought the room could hold. But the dream had had a logic of its own, and it hadn’t seemed to matter how many people, strange and familiar, had come in—the room seemed magically to expand for them. It was a happy occasion filled with good cheer until Polly had gone to the kitchen to inspect the dinner. There, disaster awaited her. She must have turned the oven too high, for curls of smoke were drifting up from the corners of the door. But as she bent over to open the oven door, she was not concerned, for exactly the same thing had happened too many times before. For Polly, cooking was an art she had never come close to mastering. She opened the door and, sure enough, thick smoke poured out into the kitchen, engulfing her, then rolling on through the small dining room and into the living room, where the coughing of her guests and the impatient yowl of her daughter finally jarred her awake.

The memory of the dream began to fade from her mind, and Polly stretched languidly, then rolled over to snuggle against the warmth of Tom’s body. Outside, a summer storm was building, and just as she was about to drift back into sleep, a bolt of lightning slashed through the faint grayness of dawn, instantly followed by a thunderclap that jerked her fully awake. She sat straight up in bed, gasping in shock at the sharp retort.

Instantly, she was seized by a fit of coughing as smoke filled her lungs.

Her eyes widened with sudden fear. The smoke was real, not a vestige of the dream.

A split second later she heard the crackling of flames.

Throwing the covers back, Polly grabbed her husband’s shoulder and shook him violently. “Tom! Tom!”

With what seemed like agonizing slowness, Tom rolled over, moaned, then reached out to her. She twisted away from him, fumbling for the lamp on her nightstand before she found the switch.

Nothing happened.

“Tom!” she screamed, her voice rising with the panic building inside her. “Wake up! The house is on fire!”

Tom came awake, instantly rising and shoving his arms into the sleeves of his bathrobe.

Polly, wearing nothing but her thin nylon negligee, ran to the door and grasped the knob, only to jerk her hand reflexively away from its searing heat. “Teri!” she moaned, her voice breaking as she spoke her daughter’s name. “Oh, God, Tom. We have to get Teri out.”

But Tom was already pushing her aside. Wrapped in one of the wool blankets from the bed, he covered the brass doorknob with one of its corners before trying to turn it. Finally he pulled the door open an inch.

Smoke poured through the gap, a penetrating cloud of searing fog that reached toward them with angry fingers, clutching at them, trying to draw them into its suffocating grasp.

Buried in the formless